Let me start by saying that working for myself as a freelance writer is one of the best decisions I’ve made in a long time, for a whole host of unsurprising reasons.
I set my own schedule. I have time and energy for creative projects I’ve long let languish. More often than not, I do the bulk of my work in my pajamas.
But despite my carefully-laid plans — arguably too-carefully laid, given that one of them involved moving back onto my parents’ property at 27 — my first full month of freelance writing definitely came with some financial surprises in tow.
Here are five things I wish someone had told me before I took the leap and became a full-time freelance writer.
1. Nothing is a sure thing
When transitioning from working on-staff at a publication to the freelance life, I did get one thing right: I made sure I had at least one solid, regular client who offered enough work to create a base salary before I left my office job.
I didn’t want to find myself sweating profusely and pitching into the wee hours the week before my bills were due. Even though I’m fortunate enough to live rent-free right now, I need a reliable income.
So I found a client who promised an essentially-unlimited amount of easily-written, pre-researched work, which would be paid out weekly (!) at a decent, per-word rate. It’s not glamorous to write; there’s no byline, and a lot of it is SEO landers and lead magnets. But it is easy to pump out, giving me great ROI for the time and energy required. And, as I mentioned, I was told I could pretty much write (i.e., earn) as much as I wanted each week.
There was, however, no formal contract. Which I thought was awesome, since it meant I could write less for them if I had a busy, successful week elsewhere.
Come to find out, the editor doles out assignments on Wednesdays…which significantly limits the theoretically “unlimited” amount of content I can write for them, since everything’s due Friday. And then I learned the company is in the midst of a big editorial shift…which translated to a couple of totally-dry weeks, which weren’t announced ahead of time.
In short, although it’s easy money, the gig turned out to be less stable than I’d first imagined.
And since I hadn’t anticipated dry weeks (and didn’t find out about them until they were already underway), I ended up spending some money I didn’t actually have.
Don’t do that. Obviously.
Also, try to negotiate some sort of formal contract whenever possible. If there isn’t one, don’t treat that client as a failsafe, no matter what kinds of verbal agreements have been made.
2. You may write now, but you’ll get paid later
One awesome thing about the above-mentioned client? They do actually pay out on a weekly basis, every single week.
This, I’ve learned, is rare. Invoicing is an imprecise art at best, and some clients will commit to little more than paying “within a week of publication,” which is, um, vague.
Don’t expect to see the payment for what you write today in your bank account tomorrow…or possibly even this month. And, again, don’t spend money you don’t actually have.
It can be disheartening to hustle without seeing the fruits of your labor for a while, but keep at it. You’re still earning money, even if you can’t watch your bank account fatten in real time.
3. Don’t get lazy with pitching
If you are lucky enough to get a super-solid, breadwinning contract, it can be tempting to rest on that reliable income and ignore opportunities to pitch elsewhere.
After all, pitching, as I’ve said before, is the worst. It’s time-consuming, labor-intensive and comes without any guarantees.
But it’s also super important. Pitching is the only way to expand your portfolio and your professional network, which will help you land bigger and better clients down the line.
So keep at it — even if you don’t absolutely need to do so right now in order to make ends meet.
4. Poorly paid writing may still be worth doing, but you need to think hard about it
You know that whole thing about “doing it for the exposure?”
It really, really sucks. But it’s also an actual thing.
When I (finally) started earning money for my work, I thought my days of writing for free were totally behind me. Not so.
Some unpaid or poorly-paid placements actually do help expand your readership and earn you more paid gigs down the road. Huffington Post, for instance, famously doesn’t pay its guest writers, but it’s a crazy-recognizable name to have in your list of clips.
That said, if you spend all your time on poorly-paid writing, you’re going to be poor, even if your portfolio is sparkling.
Think hard about the specific markets you really want to break into, and consider writing unpaid work for big names in those spaces. But don’t go overboard.
For example, when I pitched BUST and got an email saying the piece would work for the (unpaid) blog but not the print magazine, I was disappointed…but I agreed, glad to have the clip.
When I saw freelance “job” listings for outlets I’d never heard of promising pageviews rather than paychecks, however, I simply closed the tab.
5. Location independence is awesome, but traveling all the time can easily eat up your income
One of the main reasons I wanted to move on from my admittedly-awesome office job was to achieve total location independence.
However, the kind of travel I could afford to fit into my vacation days with my full-time salary is not the kind of travel I can afford now. (The fact that I’ve gone two months without taking a trip speaks to that reality — it’s been a long time since I’ve stayed still for so long!)
I’ve only planned two trips so far this year, and I’m already considering canceling one of them. I could probably afford it, but not if I want to (finally) pay off my car this year, as I’ve been promising myself for months.
Obviously, some of this is about learning how to travel as cost-effectively as possible. I am but a neophyte when it comes to remote nomadism, and lots of people have all the travel-hacking secrets to trotting the globe on a dime.
But if you’re dreaming of freelancing from a different world-class beach every week, you may need to keep on dreaming — at least for your first month or two.
Although I hope my own mistakes will help you, you’ll certainly encounter your own lessons along the way. But luckily, we’ve got lots of resources to help you get started on the right foot.
Here are four steps to take before you transition your writing game from side-hustle to full-time gig, and four ways to protect yourself as a newbie freelancer. And while you’re at it, check out this list of ways to become your editor’s favorite writer — which can help you win a steady clients and augment your professional network.
And when you do encounter your own inevitable snafus? Write about them! We all have the opportunity to help each other learn and grow in this whacky profession of ours.
Who knows? Someone might even pay you to learn from your amateur errors.
What did you learn in your first few weeks as a freelance writer? Let me know in the comments! Goodness knows I’ve still got lots of lessons left to learn.
Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) is a (new!) freelance writer whose work has been featured at Ms. Magazine, BUST, Roads & Kingdoms, The Penny Hoarder, Nashville Review, Word Riot and elsewhere. She lives in St. Augustine, Florida.